On the ancient concepts of honor and shame

“In the United States, honor and shame are largely regarded as a matter of private virtue. The honorable man or woman is good, moral, honest, and virtuous. Shame is equivalent to guilt. In the world of the Bible, honor and shame are connected to public reputation (often more so than private virtue) and sexuality. They are fundamental values of the people in the Bible. Our students need to be able to distinguish between their vague conceptions of honor and shame and the social values that shaped the lives of the Ancient Israelites.
I begin class with a brief lecture on the primary characteristics of honor and shame for the ancient Israelites. I emphasize that honor is a person’s public claim to worth combined with the public’s acknowledgement of that worth. Shame, as a positive value, is a person’s concern for reputation. Although honor and shame concern both men and women, a man’s public demeanor is characterized by honor whereas a woman’s is characterized by shame. A man publicly seeks to demonstrate that he is worthy of a good reputation but a woman in public guards herself out of concern to avoid a bad reputation. In the quest of honor, men compete with one another. Indeed, every encounter between social equals, who are not kin, is a challenge of honor. In order to maintain one’s honor, a challenged man must respond to the challenge in a comparable way. The man who does not respond adequately to a challenge loses honor to his challenger. If the man’s response is out of proportion to the challenge, he risks escalating the conflict. The competition for honor is played out only among social equals. A man of high social status gains nothing by challenging someone of low social status – his honor is already greater than the one whom he challenges. Similarly, a man of low social status cannot challenge a man of high status – his challenge is ineffective because he lacks the public honor to support his challenge. But among social equals, the social prestige of individual members of society is ranked through the gain and loss of honor.” – Teaching the Bible: Practical Strategies for Classroom Instruction by Mark Roncace and Patrick Gray.

It’s only recently have I began to scratch the surface about how out of step modern interpretation is from the cultural reality of Scripture. Case and point is the concept of honor and how integral it was to Jesus public ministry. Let’s put it another way, whenever the Pharisees, Saducees, Scribes, and Teacher of the Law challenged Jesus, it was to see who had the greater honor and the more respect of the people. Jesus had a way of always winning – whether it was by having the better answer or having the last word. I guess a good way to think of it is to see “Honor” like a stock market share. These religious groups had bet the farm on that stock. The more they lost challenges to him, they more they kept on losing honor – watching that value go down. If this continued then very soon they would be without honor. This was unacceptable – and a large part of the reason why they had to get rid of Jesus. He was getting too much honor – and worst of all, too popular among the regular people. He was a threat to the system that they had diligently worked over generations to build.

But the ancient concept of honor and shame is like an iceberg – for us we only see hints of it at the surface level, we don’t understand how it was absolutely everything to them – especially in all public interactions. It also shows us how problematic it is to assume ancient norms ought to culturally relevant even today. People have murdered, stolen, destroyed, lied, and betrayed others in the name of honor. People have also been truthful, kind, decent, helpful, and honest in the name of honor. Though for us we’re a very different society. Men and women are equals in our social sphere, which tends to be separate from our religious sphere. The ancient world had no qualms – there were no sphere and men were undeniably superior to women. This concept of honor might be the very reason why Jesus chose only male disciples but also allowed female followers to support his ministry and learn from him. These men represented public speakers who would win honor for the cause of Christ by speaking out in public. Women were almost always kept at home, it was considered shameful for a man to speak to a woman in public. In a culture of shame and honor, it’s hard enough to come by honor, and certainly no one wants to lose it through doing something shameful.

But Christ came to turn these cultural expectations upside-down. That’s why Priscilla and Aquila are remembered as a wife and husband team who taught Apollos together in a private setting the Gospel of Christ more fully; to have challenged Apollos publicly with the same information would have been seen as a challenge to his honor. Without Christianity, that story would have been just Aquila as Priscilla would have been at home tending her duties of cooking, cleaning, and watching children. And that’s why 2 John could be written not just to a church, but also a prominent lady in that church. That would have been unthinkable in that day and age that a letter written to a woman would have wisdom for men also.

It’s just sad that we don’t know about so much of this because our favorite interpretations ignore the hints about the high stakes when there’s a challenge of honor. Instead, we just teach that Aquila taught Apollos and Priscilla played the part of hostess. We teach that Nicodemus went to see Jesus at night because he was afraid of what the others would think. We teach that Jesus died because God ordained it so and that the religious leaders played their parts just like they were supposed to. Worse yet – we try to lead biblical lives and fill in the missing pieces with modern versions of ancient concepts. Then we wonder why it’s not working. To them, honor and shame were just as important as freedom and individualism are to us. Imagine what it would be like to exist in a whole other society 2,000 years from now and read our greatest works – would they ‘get’ how freedom and individualism defines how we are when they don’t understand what it means to bee free or individualistic? That is the problem we have with the ancient concepts of honor and shame.

Some practical things we can do:

  • Look at the details in each story and try to figure out why they were important enough to be mentioned.
  • Decide whether or not a story is in a public setting or a private setting.
  • To us, our dining rooms are a private setting – in some Biblical accounts crowds of people gather into a house where Jesus is. We have to understand that ancient homes tended to be divided up into two areas – a public zone (common areas – dining room, living room) and a private zone (bedrooms).
  • Educate ourselves to the ancient customs that prevailed in Biblical times to avoid jumping to conclusions what a verse or action could mean – without knowing how eating a meal was different, how hospitality was different, or how people customarily treated each other, it’s very easy to ‘read into’ scripture modern perspectives.
  • Try to imagine the perspective of all the people mentioned – and ask “What’s at stake?” Is it honor? If not honor, then what is really going on?
  • Learn the various codes of conduct that governed day to day life. Did you know that was shameful for a man to be seen talking to a woman in public? Jesus broke this rule on more than one occasion. What might that suggest about him?
  • Ancient synagogues (as well as many modern ones) set up a barrier to divide the men’s section (in the front) from the women’s section (in the back). Most American churches allow for a mixed seating so that families can sit together (side-by-side). How might being separated affect how men and women learn about God?
  •  Research alternate interpretations of accepted teachings to understand how something can have two different meanings. When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, he said it wasn’t enough to not kill (referring to the 10 commandments), he said that one shouldn’t even be angry with a brother. What is the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law in this case?

...Anyway, that's just how I feel about it ... What do you think?

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